Francona on Williams: a brilliant manager

BOSTON -- Manager Terry Francona sat in his office in the corner of the Red Sox clubhouse Thursday afternoon and recalled what it was like to know former Red Sox and Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams.

Williams passed away Thursday. He was 82.

Francona was 22 when he made his major league debut with the Montreal Expos on Aug. 1981. Williams was his manager.

“It was in Houston and I was supposed to start and Nolan Ryan was pitching,” recalls Francona. “That’s when they had the air controller’s strike, so I got to the game in the fifth inning. I found my way into the dugout and he said, ‘Kid, you’re leading off next inning.’ There was no ‘hello,’ no nothing. That was Dick.

“Then I remember in my third game I didn’t get a bunt down and he met me at the dugout and reminded me that I better get the bunt down or I’ll be doing it in [the minors].

“I also remember making a base-running play where I took an extra base, and I just happen to look up when I got to second and he was standing up and he reacted. I remember thinking, ‘This guy cares.’ He didn’t want you to know that.”

Williams managed Francona for only three weeks before the Expos fired him and replaced Williams with Jim Fanning.

“He was gruff, to say the least,” Francona said of Williams. “He was a brilliant manager and everybody knew it.

“I actually spent more time talking to him when he became a special assistant with the Yankees,” Francona said. “I went to watch a ‘B’ game once over in Tampa and he was talking to me. I was like, ‘Damn, Dick. When I played for you, you wouldn’t talk to me.’ And he laughed like crazy, but everybody mellows. He was a really good baseball man.”

Francona played in the minors with Williams’ son, Rick, at the Double-A level. Francona’s father, Tito, and Dick Williams were teammates with the Baltimore Orioles during the 1956 season.

“I’ve kind of known the family for a while,” Francona said.

Francona also recalled a conversation he once had with Williams when the Hall of Fame manager said he would not want to manage in today’s game.

Francona explained his reasons why he believed Williams was a brilliant manager.

“He was just ahead of the game,” Francona said. “He was way ahead of the game. You knew when you were going to hit, why you were going to hit and who you were going to hit off of.”

Williams managed a total of 22 years with the Red Sox (1967-69), Oakland Athletics (1971-73), California Angels (1974-76), Montreal Expos (1977-81), San Diego Padres (1982-85) and the Seattle Mariners (1986-88).

Francona said he respects the fact Williams managed for that long.

“A lot,” Francona said. “You have to want to, and you’ve got to keep from getting fired that long.”

Francona has been around Boston long enough to know the rich history the Red Sox have in New England and said he agrees with those who believe the 1967 Sox, managed by Williams, was the rebirth of the love affair this region has with this team.

“I’ve heard enough to know that they recaptured this region that year,” Francona said. “It sure seems like people fell in love with the team that year.”